Learning to love the abyss

Maria Dolan discovers that learning to snowboard is a lot like other challenges in life: You have to love the abyss.

Published December 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

I stand in a long line of people in parkas and thick gloves, all of us facing the ski lift and a white Dry-Erase board scrawled over with words in a black, emphatic hand: "CAUTION: This is an EXTREMELY difficult run. There is NO EASY WAY down this mountain."

I ride to the top of the hill with one of my two companions for this trip, a man in wire-rimmed glasses, his mouth stiff with what looks like dissatisfaction. From my right foot dangles a snowboard, a glorified tongue depressor. Though I have never been up a black diamond before, and am usually a fan of plodding endurance sports such as running and cross-country skiing, I am not scared. The moody guy spends our minutes of sky-bound suspension worked up about Japan and car co-ops, and I smile and breathe in the cold, tranquil air. I dismount casually, and pull up alongside the edge of this notorious slope, which plummets, over giant mounds of sponge cake dotting an incline as gentle as Lombard Street, to nothing, and still I am fine, fine. Only the mildest fibrillations strum my chest, the heart murmurs of a guppy.

We go over the edge and for a moment, before I can fight the momentum, I am excited and not quite sure I will make it, moving fast over fat powder I've always known was there, way up on top. Soon enough, though, on our steep slope, I am able to make things fine again. I move slowly. Everything glistens in this high altitude light. I can see far, across to other mountains and wisps of hovering cloud. It smells like the inside of an ice machine. Where the hillside is especially steep, terraced grooves have been cut by other skiers and boarders, and as I ride I can drag my bulbous mitten across the snow above me, which blows out from beneath my hand like flour. There are faraway sounds of people calling to each other, and then up close the Styrofoam creak of flakes packing down under a skier's weight; the rasp of their humid, gusty breath.

My companions, with my blessing, move far ahead of me, and eventually I am on my own. Occasionally I try to point straight down, but each time an achy panic grips my chest and I pull back. I am horrified at the sight of the mountain falling away beneath me, at the dark woods on each side, and especially at the young girl halfway down the slope, yelping weakly while Ski Patrol aides fit her limbs to a rescue stretcher.

After what seems like a long time the way opens out onto a wide hill, with the lodge at its base. As I get closer there are small ridges in the icy snow, and my board slips out from underneath me. My head cracks against the ground, my arms fling out involuntarily from my sides, crucifix-style, and I picture myself in traction for a sport I'm only just starting to like.

I find my friends, and we break for lunch. I am dizzy from my fall, and a little dismayed, but I perk up in the company of these goofy men and a riot of food. Their friend, a former ski instructor, opens a big container of cold pasta, the eco-Japanophile has brought recycled yogurt containers full of cut-up vegetables. I bury myself in a giant sandwich, gnaw my way through a plate of spiced curly fries. When they ask me if I'm having fun, I agree that yes, I'm loving the day, the sun, the nest of fries and those great dunes of snow at the top of the mountain. The ski instructor, broad-shouldered and handsome, goes so far as to point out what good he saw: "You were cruisin' down that one hill!" he says. "Did you feel how fast you were going?" I want to agree with him, but I know I've been a coward.

The most important thing in boarding is the turns. Turn-taking is the
meat, the barbecued tofu of boarding; it is what you go up to the top of the
mountain to do. Only 14-year-olds in the snowboard park executing outrageous
jumps and spinning like maple propellers just to see how it feels aren't
focused on turning, or "carving."

To take turns you must, as with skiing, sometimes allow your equipment to
point straight down the mountain. Since your feet are strapped on
perpendicular to the board's length, they then point across the incline. You
hold your knees and arms soft and turn your head to look over your leading
shoulder downhill toward where you're going. You should not lean back when
you do this, chin tucked into your neck like the dentist is coming at you
with the vibrating plaque remover tool. You should stay upright and loose as
a hula dancer, lean forward, even, for more momentum. Then, tilting back and
forth on the edges of this board, enjoy going 35 miles an hour without a
single pole or pillow or flotation device to stop you.

A couple of techniques have been created by boarders to get them out of
tight situations. The "Fakey," for instance. When going down a chute of snow
between trees barely wider than the length of your snowboard, say, you can
learn to crisscross forward and back across the tiny space staying only on
one edge, not turning, keeping things slow and safe until you reach more open
terrain. Another technique, which I have christened the "Slippy," involves
scooting downhill on the back edge of your board while facing forward and,
again, not turning -- a method as exciting and glamorous as life lived on a
recumbent bicycle.

I lean back, tucking the last fry into my mouth, and consider the morning.
On my trip down I'd been fakeying and slippying and occasionally making a
wide turn when I was sure the slope was gentle. The other boarder I'm with
has already gotten better than me, and it's easy to see why. By lunch time he
had wiped out at least 14 times. After each fall he'd looked back up the hill
toward me from the ground with the face of someone trampled by bulls, but it
hadn't stopped him from taking the chance again and again, and pretty soon he
wasn't falling so much. An amateur surfer, he is willing to wipe out, to
suffer bruises and look like a fool.

I had taken my first real snowboarding trip last year with a guy who was
trying to woo me, a quintessentially Northwestern guy, tall as a spruce and
as Type A as Buddha. He moves over the snow like he's part of it, like a wave
over water. That particular Saturday was icy, and the bunny hill was thick with snowboarders new to the sport, teetering all over the mountain like Ice
Capades Bambis. We went up the short lift and down the hill over and over,
and I fell until the vibrations from landing on packed snow had traveled up
my spine and reshaped my brain. We stopped for lunch, parking ourselves at
his suggestion on a mound of snow at the top of the lift. There we faced the
spot where skiers and boarders are dumped from the chair onto a hill formed
too steep by some snow-grooming sadist. We pulled our high-piled sandwiches
from the sweaty pockets of our parkas and viewed the carnage, like
spectators in the Colosseum.

One after another they descended. One after another people jumped off too
late and collapsed, or too early and were bumped by the chair. Much of the
time, people who had come to the mountain to learn to ski together in some
misguided attempt at fun and games got off the lift and groped desperately at
each other when they knew they were about to fall, like people in the process
of drowning. The lift operator shut the machinery down for a minute each time
while they dragged themselves off to the side. I felt guilty witnessing this,
yet curiously relieved.

Now, I realize, those first, head-knocking days were my most daring.

We ride up again.

And on my way down, again, I am too cautious. By the time I reach
bottom the other new boarder has been waiting several minutes, quizzically
observing my descent. "You were fakeying the whole way!" he cheerfully
comments when I arrive. My heart, too, slips out from under me. NO EASY WAY,
I think.

The next time I ride to the top alone, and once there I slippy, and
fakey, until I feel like I'm at Six Flags and it's my 18th time on the
kiddie coaster.

I force myself to make one turn on a more gentle slope, and it
works, and before I can look down the hill and seize up I make another turn
back again and it works! And I turn and turn and determine not to look ahead.
I move back and forth like a maniacal sewing machine, stitching my path -- I am
Alberto Tomba! I am Picabo Street! -- and I execute one last lovely turn before
I discover, head dragging on snow, that I have gone over the steep lip of the
universe. I come to a stop beneath a lift full of people on their way to the
top. Their skis dangle above me, and their gloved hands cup the center poles
of their chairs lightly as they peer over the side to see if I have survived.
They quietly analyze my failure among themselves, gliding by. I scoop a small
white shelf from the side of the hill and think maybe I'll sit on it forever
in these snowboarding overalls that belong on someone else, my feet eternally
attached to this board, my albatross.

I look at my hands and huff. I squint across to the next mountain and sigh.
I pull my hat farther down around my ears. I'd like to cry. I'm disgusted
that I still can't turn when it's steep, point downward, let go. I'm strong.
I can protect myself. I can do this for hours.

I look down the hill at boys half my age, their boards afterthoughts on
their feet. I think of friends who brought me up here, boarding junkies
confident where I am terrified, graceful where I am awkward. Who bear bruises
up and down their thighs and skinny asses from every trip, proof that they
have taken chances, proof they have fallen and gotten up.

I will never be good at this.

How do I hate myself for being bad at something as trivial as snowboarding?
I see now, too clearly, how I cling to the easy route, how I am petrified of
being outside safety, of heading straight down. Straight into the abyss. I am
afraid of making the first move. I am afraid of hurting people. I am afraid
to let out the things that clatter in my head. I am lazy. I wait.

Sitting on this mountain in the anodyne sunshine of March, it is
as if I inhabit a carefree place -- some Swiss village -- and the world is mine.
Except for a dark past that I know will catch up with me.

I begin to think of the people I respect -- people I've known and those I haven't, who couldn't do this. I don't think my old writing teacher would
have managed it, or that Virginia Woolf, however experimental and wild in her
art, would have taken to such a diversion. I have heard that Einstein
surprised an interviewer by being well-built and vigorous, and I will admit
the possibility that Einstein might, yes, possibly have done this.

To the top once more.

I ride up the first leg with a large man in a bandanna who looks like a bear
just emerged from hibernation. He doesn't speak to me, and his bulk sags the
chair at an angle so that the whole mountain seems to tilt. I look out over
my side of the hill and wonder about the bad names of most ski lifts, like
cut-rate carnival rides: "Debbie's Gold," "I-5," "Edelweiss," runs named
after long-gone girlfriends, freeways, mythical European vistas. I watch boys
one-third my age fall down and ring "Fuck! Fuck!" across the mountainside,
already pissed off at the possibility of failing.

I ride up the second chair with a large, jovial man who asks what I
do, and when I say I write, he asks what I write, and when I answer he asks
what I do with that writing, and the questions continue until I think maybe I
am not too afraid to just scoot forward and let go into the mound of snow
falling away so many feet beneath me. His ski pole keeps touching my thigh
and each time it does I turn to look at him, hoping it is his hand touching
me so I'll have an excuse to scream. When we are about to stand up from the
chair he jostles me, and being a boarder I have no ski pole to hook him into
my flailing dismount. I tumble gently to a stop, as always, alone in this

By Maria Dolan

Seattle essayist Maria Dolan wrote "Learning to Love the Abyss" for Salon Wanderlust in December 1997. She is at work on a book about urban nature.

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